LUMBERTON — Robeson County ranks No. 1 in North Carolina in the percentage of people living under the poverty line, and ranks 80th in the United States out of 3,143 counties.
According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 31.5 percent of Robesonians during 2010 were living below the poverty level, which is based on an annual income of $10,890 for an individual or $18,530 for a family of three.
Robeson County’s rate is more than double last year’s national poverty rate of 15.3 percent — the highest it has been since 1993. North Carolina’s rate for 2011 was 17.4 percent, the 13th highest in the nation.
Robeson County is considered by the United State Department of Agriculture to be one of 535 “persistent poverty” counties in which 20 percent or more of the population has been below the poverty level in each census since 1960.
According to Brooke Kelly, a professor of Sociology at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, these counties are overwhelmingly rural with high unemployment rates, low education and literacy rates, have a high percentage of female-headed households and have large minority populations.
Kelly said that all of these factors create a“rippling effect.”
“It’s a complex thing,” Kelly said. “It’s hard to look at just one component. But in this area in particular, unemployment is a major factor in poverty.”
Between 1997 and 2003, the county lost 41 percent of its manufacturing jobs, according to a 2005 study by the Center for Community Action in Lumberton.
This exportation of jobs crippled the county’s economy, which was dealt another blow by the economic downfall in 2008, sending the county’s already high unemployment rate into double-digits. It is currently about 12.7 percent — almost double the rate a decade ago.
“The county started out at a deficit,” Kelly said. “Now you add to that this recession that is hurting everyone.”
Mac Legerton, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Community Action and one of the authors of the impact report, said that poverty has been a systemic problem in Robeson County.
“It’s generational,” Legerton said. “If your parents were poor, you are more than likely going to be poor.”
More than 16,000 children — or 45.5 percent — under the age of 18 in Robeson County are living in poverty, according to the 2010 Census data.
But Legerton believes the recent rise in people suffering from poverty can be traced to the United States’ federal trade policy.
“Our government’s economic policies are not promoting or protecting our livelihoods,” Legerton said. “It’s not surprising that we continue to be on the top of the list in terms of poverty in the county, especially since we have lost most of our manufacturing base and a lot of our agricultural base.
“This rise is due to no fault of our own,” Legerton said.
He said that the North American Free Trade Agreement has out-sourced jobs and in-sourced immigrant labor, taking jobs away from rural communities like Robeson County.
“I don’t see any end in sight,” he said.
The North Carolina Justice Center recently released a study titled “Making ends meet after the great recession: the 2010 Living Income Standard for North Carolina,” which details the underemployment of North Carolinians, meaning that they are employed, but at a job that does not allow them to meet their basic human needs.
According to the study’s findings, between one-third and one-half of all full-time workers in Robeson County make less than $16.05 per hour, which is the living income standard.
“This means that one-third to one-half of all people working full-time in Robeson County are working poor,” Legerton said. “They are working and committed to supporting themselves and their families, but they are not making it out of poverty.”
As the number of poor has risen, so has the demand for assistance.
The Department of Social Services doles out about $30 million a month — $360 million a year — to 80,000 Robeson County recipients in four public assistance programs, Child Support, Work First, Food Stamps and Medicaid.
Sandra Lee, the department’s Work First and Child Support program manager, said many of the programs have strict income qualifications and limitations on how long recipients can receive assistance.
The Work First program is designed to provide parents or grandparents with children under the age of 18 the opportunity to participate in a 35-hour work-study program, part-time work or continuing education classes.
“Our main goal is to help these people become employed,” Lee said.
Lee said a bulk of clients seeking support through DSS’s Work First program are between the ages of 20 and 24, where their lack of education and experience hinder their ability to get a job. She said the assistance is a temporary fix for their situation until they can become employed.
“A lot of the time we think of (poverty) as an us and them dynamic,” Kelly said.
She said that about 60 percent of people will experience poverty at some point.
Legerton said that overcoming poverty has a lot to do with one’s “will power” and “skill power.”
“There are a lot of programs that focus on the skills, so at the center we try to offer emotional and personal support to give people the will power to better their own lives,” Legerton said.
Health care is the top employer in Robeson County, Legerton said, followed closely by the government and its education system. But the hospital and schools are having to look outside of the county to recruit employees because not enough people in the county are qualified for those positions.
Other emerging sectors include food production, green energy and tourism.
“We’re going to have to lead the way to our own solutions,” Legerton said. “We need to focus on jobs that won’t be out-sourced, and support locally and regionally owned businesses or support their creation. We have to work more closely together to create a vibrant local economy, so we won’t be as vulnerable to the whims of the global economy.”
— Reach staff writer Ali Rockett at 910-272-6127 or firstname.lastname@example.org.